Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Antiwar and Radical History Project – Pacific Northwest
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"The Peace Christmas," a poem by Jack Mitchell from the First US Infantry, reprinted in The Bugle, a weekly newspaper printed for the soldiers of Fort Lewis' 166th Depot Brigade. Despite the boosterism of most of The Bugle's articles, Christmas holdiays inspired soldiers in the US and fighting abroad to go over the heads of their commanders and declare Christmas truces. (Courtesy of the Washington State Archives, military newspaper collection)


 Pacific NW Antiwar History

This page is one part of a multi-part illustrated history, written by Jessie Kindig, that provides an overview of regional and national antiwar experiences. Click the link below to be taken to each section.

Anna Louise Strong, c. 1913, socialist and leader of the Seattle chapter of the American Union Against Militarism, later the No Conscription League, who was put on trial for speaking out against the war. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Washington Librairies)

Northwest Antiwar History: Ch 1


Labor Radicalism and World War I

by Jessie Kindig

The decades leading up to World War I had seen the emergence of the union movement. Organizations like the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) gained national prominence with their ideas of building a democratic worker-run society not tied to the interests of capital or business. Many movements for social change were framed in terms of labor—the IWW worked to organize workers of all ethnicities and backgrounds—and agitation against Europe’s Great War was no exception. In the Northwest, World War I highlighted organized labor’s place as an (often radical) political actor, and precipitated the Seattle General Strike of 1919.

World War I was a conflict between European powers over boundaries, borders, and spheres of influence in colonized continents. It emerged just as the United States entered a deep economic recession in 1914 and seemed to provide a way for American capital to solve the economic crisis by expanding into foreign markets and competing for its own sphere of political and economic influence.

While for some the prospect of American entry into the conflict meant jobs in war industries like shipbuilding, lumber, and shipping, for others it meant conscription into a brutal overseas war and a curtailing of democratic freedoms at home. In Seattle, the war reduced unemployment but also produced an outpouring of antiwar agitation, stemming from the labor and radical movements. Penned by socialist Hulet M. Wells, the Seattle Central Labor Council (representing 25,000 workers) passed an antiwar resolution the day after European fighting was declared in 1914. It stated:

“Whereas, the appalling loss of life which will inevitably result…will fall with crushing force on the working class alone, while the kings, capitalists, and aristocrats remain in safety, and

Whereas, no possible outcome of such an international war can benefit to any extent whatever the workers, whose enemies are not the workers of other nations, but the exploiting class of every nation…

Therefore, as representatives of the organized working class, we declare the European war to be an international crime and a horror for which there is no parallel in savagery… To all those workers of Europe who have resisted the war craze we extend our sympathy and respect, and we pledge our efforts against any attempt to draw our own country into a foreign war.”

Seattle socialist Anna Louise Strong helped to organize a local chapter of the American Union Against Militarism (forerunner of the ACLU), which brought together church groups, socialists, liberal organizations, and the Central Labor Council to agitate against an American entry into the war. They conducted street polls, and reported that 90% of the Seattle public was opposed to the war. While that figure may be too high, there were definitely strong expressions of antiwar activity: in response to the government-sponsored Preparedness Day Parades, 3,500 counter-protesters met Seattle’s May 28, 1916 parade, and mothers, socialists, university professors, and the Port Commissioner all denounced the drive to war. On the eve of President Wilson’s declaration of war, the Central Labor Council passed another unanimous resolution calling on Washington’s Congressmen to avoid the war. [2] Rural farmers from Washington State’s Grange movement also joined with industrial labor to advocate American neutrality.[3]

Yet the government sponsored massive propaganda campaigns—the best-known being the Creel Commission—to convince the public that war was both right and inevitable. The government also took steps to repress antiwar activity once war was declared in 1917 by passing the Espionage Act, which made any “disloyal” statements illegal. The Espionage Act was used to round up not just antiwar speakers, but to control the growing labor radicalism in the country. Across the country, hundreds of IWW members, socialists, and radicals were put on trial or imprisoned.

The Seattle American Union Against Militarism converted itself into the No Conscription League, and published 20,000 copies of a pamphlet against the compulsory draft bill. Entitled “No Conscription! No Involuntary Servitude!,” the pamphlet raised the ire of Seattle-area newspapers, and led to the trial of Anna Louise Strong, Hulet Wells, Sam Sadler (editor of the Seattle labor papers the Daily Call and Union Record), and radicals Joe and Morris Pass. Strong’s eloquent courtroom testimony led to a hung jury, but Wells, Sadler, and the Passes were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.[4] Washington radical H. W. Watts, editor of the oldest socialist paper in the state, the Northwest Worker, was deported to Canada, while the secretary of the state Socialist Party, Emil Herman, was sentenced to ten years in McNeil Island penitentiary.[5] Nationally, Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, was sentenced to prison for his famous antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio.

Despite the repression of antiwar and labor activists, the war had unintended consequences. Along with the wartime expansion of shipyards and Seattle’s waterfront was the growth of a unionized workforce led by the progressive Central Labor Council. Under wartime regulations, unions had agreed not to strike so as not to interfere with the war effort. But after the war ended, on November 11, 1918, 35,000 Seattle shipyard workers demanded a pay hike to make up for the strict wage controls mandated by the federal government during the war years. January 21, 1919, saw a general strike in the shipyards which, by February, had spread into a citywide general strike. And though it lasted less than a week, Seattle's General Strike, involving many of the same labor radicals that had agitated against World War I, inspired labor movements throughout the world.[6] [See the Seattle General Strike Project]

Click below to go to the next chapter:
Ch. 2: Cracks in the Consensus: World War II


Copyright (c) 2008 Jessie Kindig

[1] Quoted in Harvey O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), 81-82.
[2] O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle, 83-84.
[3] O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle, 83; and Carlos A. Schwantes, Radical Heritage: Labor, Socialism, and Reform in Washington and British Columbia, 1885-1917 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 214-215.
[4] Philip S. Foner, Labor and World War I: 1914-1918, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 7 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 334-335.
[5] O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle, 105.
[6] O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle, 108 and 124.